I arrived in Morocco early for my 15-day Imaginative Traveller ‘Highlights of Morocco’ trip, only by a day, but it was enough time to explore Casablanca, a city that the tour didn’t appear to cover beyond Hassan II, of which more detail in a bit. I was travelling solo and the world seems set to penalise you for that, which is frankly annoying when you consider that the number of people living alone has been rising for decades. The Imaginative (Exodus) way is for solo travellers to share rooms, unless they really wish to be on their own, then they have to pay a supplement. After years of backpacking, I was happy to see what a round of roommate roulette would throw at me; she would arrive with the rest of the group on the verge of midnight. In the meantime, there was only one key for the room, a remarkably chunky thing that looked like it should be used for opening the door to a castle and it doubled as the key to the lights so I would not be able to pop it behind reception and go to sleep. Instead, lost in a particularly good book, I waited up for her.
Those on the group flight were a bit later than midnight in the end, they’d managed to gather up a member of another tour group at the airport. She latched on to the wrong batch of tourists, obviously bamboozled by the similarity between the words Exodus and Explore.
My brief intro to C that night was friendly, and boded well for the rest of the tour. We bonded over our shared bemusement of the lace-trimmed, four-poster beds with domineering oil paintings looming overhead, she set an alarm for breakfast, and we went to sleep. We would reconvene in the morning.
My only previous experience of group travel was several multi-day tours I took around Australia in my mid-twenties. As a result, I imagined a small group of people my own age. I half hoped for a nice single hottie to admire as we journeyed around Morocco. Dream on, my dear. There were 12 of us, ranging in age from 30 to 70, with a heavy emphasis on the latter section of the span. I was, it turned out, a young ‘un. I will admit that, at first, I was a little disappointed, having hoped to meet some new people from my own generation; however, it was not to be and the other members of the group turned out to be lovely, interesting and exceptionally well-travelled.
It was raining as we arrived, but the building was no less spectacular than the previous day. The second-largest religious building in the world after the mosque in Mecca, it can hold 25,000 worshippers inside and a further 80,000 in the courtyard outside. Its minaret reaches 200 metres into the Moroccan sky and houses a laser at its peak that sends out a beam towards Mecca. Although the Moroccan tradition is for non-Muslim’s not to be given access to religious buildings, visitors of all backgrounds and beliefs are allowed to enter on guided tours.
The walls are made of hand-crafted marble, the chandeliers of Venetian Murano glass, the doors of titanium, to protect them from the potentially damaging effects of the sea, the roof is retractable, like Wimbledon’s Centre Court, and twelve million people paid for its construction, which lasted seven years. Having finally opened its doors in 1993, the only thing not working beautifully is the hammam in the basement, which remains unused. It is well worth a tour.
The next stop would be Rabat, and on the way out of Casablanca in the minibus I finally spotted Rick’s Café, just round the corner from the hotel, typical!
Rabat was about an hour’s drive north, and first impressions of the city as we drove in were slightly more favourable than Casablanca. We stopped for lunch in a café, shuffling in to find the Explore group had arrived first. It wasn’t great, overpriced cheese omelette did not strike me as a particularly Moroccan experience. Hopefully the food would improve as the tour progressed.
The ruins of Chellah were our next port of call. Uninhabited since the early twelfth century, the walled ruins now provide a perfect nesting place for a muster of storks. It appeared to be mating season when we arrived, the frisky beggars were making an almighty clacking sound from their perches high up on the minarets and in the trees overlooking the remains of a once prosperous roman city and all of the subsequent societies that have inhabited the spot since that empire’s decline.
From Chellah we moved on to the Mausoleum of Mohammad V. Commissioned by his son Hassan II, it is a perfectly preserved example of the Alaouite dynasty’s architectural style and the final resting place of three significant members of the royal family. It is located in Yacoub Al Mansour Square across from the Hassan Tower. The tower, begun in 1195, was intended to be the largest minaret in the world, but in 1199 Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour died and construction on the tower, and the mosque of which it was a part, stopped. The tower reached about half of its intended 86 m height and only the beginnings of several walls and 200 columns of the mosque were ever constructed.
Our hotel for the night was in Meknes, a further two hours away. The countryside was at first littered with plastic bags, but once outside of the city’s environs, lush, undulating landscape, reminiscent of northern Spain, took over. After a dinner of vegetable cous cous and crème caramel, eaten in a small restaurant decorated with slightly risqué wall art, we said goodbye to a very busy day one.